Christmas (Jul) in Sweden is a cozy time – filled with lots of white lights, snow, freezing temperatures, trees lit up in every town centre. It is also the darkest month of the year, meaning Swedes go crazy with the tea lights and stars in the windows to make up for the lack of sun. Let’s take a dive into how Christmas is celebrated in Sweden.
First, who is Tomte? Is he the same as Santa Claus? What about Nisse? What are the differences? To start, Tomte is an elf, sort of.
In other cultures, elves are Santa’s helpers at the workshop in the North Pole. They create the toys, fix them, and feed the reindeer for the other 364 days of the year. In Sweden, Tomte is a bit like Santa’s right hand elf. He visits the homes while Santa makes his way around the globe. In Sweden, Tomte visits every home on Christmas Eve (Julafton) to bring a gift to everyone (including adults!).
Tomte and Nisse
Tomte comes from the word for plot or land, and is often equated to a gnome. He is a short, bearded man who looks after the home (hustomte) or farm or garden – think garden gnome. He is a benevolent, friendly helper, often depicted as a sprite or spirit. Also made popular by Swedish author Astrid Lingren.
Nisse, is derived from Nicholas, which is how Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus come into play in Scandinavian cultures, more commonly in Norway.
Both tomte and nisse are hard working farm hands that care for the horses and other animals and ask only for respect from their human cohorts. On Christmas Eve, they desire a bowl of julgrött (Christmas porridge) with butter as their due for their hard work. If a home or farm is well taken care of, it is said that a tomte has been happily living there alongside the humans and animals.
Jultomte in Sweden is similar to Santa Claus but with a few differences. He is slightly taller than his tomte gnome friends (such as as tall as a human), and when dressed in classic red with his white beard, can be mistaken for Santa. However, his sleigh is drawn by a goat rather than reindeer, and he requests Christmas porridge rather than cookies and milk. The goat symbol can now be found lit up throughout Sweden as part of the Christmas decor and also has affiliations to Christianity and Thor’s screaming goats in Norse mythology.
If you are looking for typical Christmas decor in Sweden, you will find Tomte and his goat everywhere. As candle holders, standalone decorative figurines, as ornaments for the tree, or advent decorations.
Pepparkakor (Gingerbread Cookies) Competition
Another Jul tradition in Sweden is the annual gingerbread house competition (pepparkakshus tävling) sponsored by the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design (Arkdes for short). It invites adults and children to create, using gingerbread, their answer to a unique question. In 2014, the question was along the lines of: “Sweden is in a housing crisis, what kind of home would you build to solve it?” and the resolutions created were nothing short of inspiring! Some built boat-homes, claiming that Sweden is so well known for its lakes – why not capitalize on that and use the water/space? Others were innovative and built homes underground or underwater. In 2022, the theme was “what is waiting around the corner? Just out of reach?”.
The traditional competition receives a lot of entries and the winners are showcased alongside an awards ceremony. Unfortunately, in 2023 the beloved tradition will not take place at Arkdes, as they are closed for reconstruction until 2024.
Families also take part in this competition, but on a less public nature. Many families decorate a gingerbread house at home each year or simply make gingerbread cookie figures for Christmas dessert. Alongside these cookies, other food items are traditionally served at Christmas in Sweden.
If you visit a Swedish friend or family member’s home for Christmas, you are likely to see some of the traditional food that is served every year. Often a Christmas ham (griljering in Swedish) is served as the main course. It is a ham with a mustard and egg wash and bread crumb outer layer. You will likely also find traditional Swedish food such as meatballs (köttbullar in Swedish) and sill. These two may have been seen or tasted before at other holiday meals, Swedish food tends to be similar for each holiday.
Julmust (Christmas soda) is very common as well, which is a bit like Coca-cola but slightly different. Another traditional drink for Christmas is the Swedish version of spiced wine, called glögg. It is served with or without alcohol and is usually heated – either on a stove or over a small tea light candle. In each glass, is a mixture of nuts and raisins that soak up all the delicious flavors. It is truly a treat if you get a chance to try it out.
A fun tradition in Sweden surrounding Christmas foods is the annual Julbord (Chirstmas table). This event features small dishes set up like a buffet (or smorgåsbord, which you have likely heard of before). Many times your work place will invite you to one if you are working for a Swedish company. The meal can take hours as it is a serve yourself sort of event or can be many courses. The food served will be similar to what you might eat at someone’s home, or can be much fancier.
You might eat the traditional sill (pickled herring), followed by a fish course such as salmon (lax) or cod as well as hard boiled eggs. Next you might find cold meats to pick from such as ham, reindeer, chicken liver/pate, or other meats. There are always meatballs and sausage (köttbullar and prinskorv) as well as a potato dish, cabbage, or beets and other vegetables. Desserts might include a rice pudding or two and something flavored with saffron. Maybe some chocolates adorn the table also with some sides of knäckebröd, thick dry bread. You might also find lussebullar, and other traditional Christmas pastries.
You might see a candle that has the numbers 1 to 24 on it. This candle is meant to be lit every night to mark the passage of December to Christmas Eve. These are either decorative such as in the pine cone shape or tomte, or can be plain white with numbers.
Swedes celebrate the four Sundays/weeks leading up to Christmas as part of Advent. Although advent used to have religious affiliations in the celebrating and remembering the arrival of Jesus, it no longer holds such sway in Sweden. Like many holidays in Sweden, the religious aspect is long since celebrated by most. The four weeks prior to Christmas are remembered in Sweden through the lighting of four candles – one on each Sunday. These decorative advent candle holders also usually include some gnome/tomte figurines, maybe a mushroom or two, and can even have live moss.
Alongside the candles for Advent, Swedes also may have an advent calendar that is filled with chocolate. Each day you open a new window and find a new chocolate – another way to mark the passage to Christmas, but this does not only have four windows – usually this calendar is for the entire month of December, it just has a misleading name.
Stars in the windows are also a common occurrence for Swedish homes during advent. Many do not decorate for Christmas until the first Sunday of advent, and this includes the famed Swedish stars, and the seven pyramid-shaped candlesticks (adventljustakar in Swedish). The stars used to represent the Christian tradition of lighting the path to Jesus for the wise men who followed the stars to his birth. Now they simply keep darkness at bay for many Swedes. The seven candlesticks are now also very common but the tradition apparently comes from a German notion of a Christmas tree (pyramid shape) and was meant to represent each day of the week. Now the electric candles simply light up people’s window sills without knowing much of the tradition.
On the 23rd of December, you might find Swedes staying up late to watch a Bingo program on television. This tradition is called uppersittarkväll (sitting up night) because it takes place the night before Christmas. Bingo is played on tv and you can purchase cards in advance to play along. If you win, there is a phone number to call and claim your prize. Many families gather together to play bingo and stay up late. The tv program plays multiple rounds of bingo, ending somewhere around midnight.
Donald Duck Program
On Christmas Eve, around three o clock in the afternoon, you may find Swedes crowded around the tv to watch the annual Donald Duck program. Although Donald Duck is featured in the program, it is mainly a Disney program including other characters. The program (in Swedish) also includes a hint at a new Disney movie to come out in the new year. Kids (and adults) enjoy the cozy program before dinner is served and it is a yearly tradition for the entire family.
Jul in Sweden can be cozy, filled with lights, candles. gnomes, and cookies. The get togethers are warm and can include games like bingo played up and down the country. How are you going to celebrate Christmas in Sweden?